March 25, 2019
By Nelson Beckford, The Cleveland Foundation
Think about curb cuts for a minute. Fifty years ago, wheelchair users and activists found it difficult to navigate city streets because of the sharp sidewalk drop-offs making it impossible to travel city blocks without assistance. Well organized advocacy and lobbying led to solutions such as curb cuts, ramps alongside staircases, elevators with reachable buttons, and accessible bathrooms. These interventions improved wheelchair accessibility while further expanding benefits to individuals with strollers and delivery people. The benefits pie didn’t shrink.
Picture this: a rectangular table with 30 leaders from Cleveland’s community development industry in a meeting hosted by Cleveland Neighborhood Progress. These are the people that are doing the herculean task of stabilizing and revitalizing neighborhoods. Like other cities, Cleveland neighborhoods can be broadly categorized into three typologies: strong, middle, and distressed. We (program staff from the Cleveland Foundation and a community development outreach officer at the Cleveland Federal Reserve Bank) were invited to lead a conversation about the concept of ‘middle neighborhoods’ and to give a recap of the Middle Neighborhood conference. I didn’t know what to expect. Will the group take offense to the term ‘middle neighborhood’? Will this cause a pull on resources to distressed places? What about race?
To our surprise, people leaned into the discussions. The directors from the middle neighborhoods talked about the ways these places are changing and the many ways they are not. One director from a ‘distressed neighborhood’ said that they aspire to be a ‘middle neighborhood’. A director from a ‘strong neighborhood’ talked how there are certain streets that classify as ‘middle’.
In closing, this conversation around ‘middle neighborhoods’ has just begun. The first order of business is trying to define this term in the context of Cleveland – at this moment in time. Scale is also a question we need to wrestle with. Maybe ‘middle neighborhood’ is the wrong term. We also know that, like with curb cuts, the movement will be a failure if the benefits and lessons don’t transfer to the other neighborhood types. That is our charge.